Tyrone Guthrie established his signature playhouse in 1963 with a mission to stage the classics. His first season reflected that with “Hamlet,” Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” and Molière’s “The Miser.”
The fourth production of that inaugural season raised eyebrows, however. Not even 15 years old, “Death of a Salesman” was chosen because Guthrie believed that playwright Arthur Miller had created a play that transcended time and place.
Given that auspicious start, it is curious that the Guthrie staged only two of Miller’s plays in its first 34 years — “Salesman” twice and “The Crucible” once. Not until Joe Dowling became artistic director in 1996 did the theater form what might be called a special relationship with Miller.
This weekend Dowling opens “The Crucible,” his final testament with Miller in a 20-year tenure. This marks the seventh time Dowling has put Miller on a Guthrie stage — more than any writer not named William Shakespeare. Yes, more than Brian Friel, a Dowling friend who holds a soft spot in the director’s heart, or George Bernard Shaw, another fellow Irishman.
Dowling wrote of his admiration for the playwright in an essay collected in “Remembering Arthur Miller.”
“I can still remember the excitement of reading ‘The Crucible’ for the first time,” Dowling wrote. “This play had everything I could imagine in a great play: memorable characters, a great story, an historical theme that spoke of contemporary issues in an immediate way. It had dialogue that was both literate and thrilling to speak.
“I read the play aloud in the privacy of my bedroom, playing every part, male and female, young and old.”
Little wonder, then, that Dowling would pick this play in his valedictory season. His cast will include Erik Heger and Michelle O’Neill (who played the Macbeths in 2010), old friend Peter Michael Goetz, Stephen Yoakam, Greta Oglesby and Raye Birk.
“To say that Arthur Miller was the most impressive person I have ever met is to underestimate his impact by several degrees,” Dowling wrote in his essay.
Setting the story
Aiding the Guthrie production is dramaturge Jo Holcomb. Definitions are many as to what a dramaturge does; Holcomb opts for the notion that she is providing historical context, religious and social customs or dialect that might help actors understand the dialogue. For a production of “Hedda Gabler,” Holcomb said, an actor complained that a certain phrase was coming out wrong. She went to the Norwegian and found that the phrase had been translated wrong. “His instinct was correct,” she said.
This time, her packet of material includes a glossary of terms, a map of Salem, Mass., in 1692, sketches, descriptions of everyday life and the mind-set of colonists who were 70 years into the American experience.
“I create a world for the actors to feel immersed in,” she said.
“The Crucible” is both a metaphorical indictment of midcentury U.S. politics and a personal statement for Miller.
He had written two Broadway successes — both directed by his close friend Elia Kazan — a few years before the House Un-American Activities Committee began its investigation of alleged Communist influence. Even though he would not be called to testify for several years, Miller had made the connection with the 17th-century witch hunt in Salem.
Kazan famously named names in his 1952 House testimony, which caused Miller to sever their relationship. Jed Harris staged “The Crucible” in 1953.
Miller went to Salem and read reams of handwritten testimony and investigatory files from 1692-93. In these dense, gnarled writings, he found characters and “suddenly, there was dialogue,” Holcomb said.
Though the political allegory was aimed at the 20th century, Miller’s play conjures a very specific community defined by its Puritanism. Holcomb has talked with actors about how life in Salem was shaped by religion and pre-modern attitudes about the supernatural. She also read the transcripts (now in typed book form) — an experience she said “will give you nightmares.”
Holcomb feels “The Crucible” makes sense at this time. It’s Dowling’s last at-bat with Miller, but it is also the 100th anniversary of the playwright’s birth — not to mention it has been 40 years since the Guthrie first staged the play.
Of the great 20th-century American playwrights, Tennessee Williams wrote from his broken heart, Eugene O’Neill from the mess of his living hell and Thornton Wilder from a sense of family and community.
Arthur Miller built his contribution from the broad muscle of American themes identifiable as political, economic, social. His work has become part of the American lingo — Willy Loman represents something more than a mere character in a play. “The Crucible” borrows from two historical tragedies and remains relevant today as manipulations, lies and accusations of many political and social stripes are passed off as truth in the 24-hour game of social and news media.
Miller clearly had a special relationship with the Guthrie in the Dowling years. In the playwright’s dotage, Miller came often to Minneapolis. In 2000, Dowling brought the Signature Theatre production of “Mr. Peters’ Connections” to the Guthrie Lab. Dowling then directed “All My Sons” (Miller’s first great success from 1947) and in 2002, Miller chose the Guthrie for the premiere of his penultimate play, “Resurrection Blues” (directed by David Esbjornson).
Miller wrote one last play, “Finishing the Picture,” at the Goodman Theatre in 2004. He died, at age 89, 10 months after it opened.
For all the American social scaffolding on which Miller schemed his plays, Holcomb believes his work has endured because of his understanding of character.
“He’s talking about the human spirit and how choices are made,” she said. “In terms of personal humanity, it never changes.”
Indeed, even as the world changes constantly with new names, places, technologies and trends, the aim of classic art is to show that we are ever as we always have been.